- Newmarket, County Cork, Ireland – Birthplace
- 24 July 1750 – Born
“Depend upon it, my dear fried, it is a serious misfortune in life to have a mind more sensitive or mroe cultivated than common–it naturally elevates it possessor into a region which he must be doomed to find nearly uninhabited.”
– John Filpot Curran
Life Sketch from The Other Eminent Men of Wilford WoodruffCopyright © Taken from the book: The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Special thanks to Vicki Jo Anderson. Please do not copy. Irish Satesman 1750-1817
Early LifeNow and then Providence seems to smile on the earth by providing her with an individual possessed of truly great wit and humor. John Filpot Curran was the wittiest and most eloquent constitutional lawyer of his time. He came into public service in the Irish Parliament at a time when the government was most reprehensible. As part of the new opposition party courageously he used his wit and humor o bring new hope, For the people of Ireland, the days seemed a little brighter, the oppressed had a champion. Curran was born in Newmarket, in the country of Cork, Ireland, on 14 July 1750. His beginnings were humble, His patriarchal line is said to have com form an English soldier in Cromwell;s army, and the same army that subdued Ireland. In Curran’s account of the family, he paid his highest tribute to his bright and intellectual mother. (Her maiden name of Filpot became his middle name.) “If the world has ever attributed to me something more valuable … than earthly wealth,” Curran stated, “it was that … a dearer parent gave her child a portion from the treasure of her own mind.” 1
Curran’s MotherFrom Curran’s account she must have been an extraordinarily woman, because of her station in life she was uneducated bit she did not allow this thing to be a disadvantage. She was filled with enthusiasm for life and readily used her numerous gifts and talent to help others. Witty and eloquent, she was the delight of those who came within the circle of her influence. Many would site with her in the evening just to hear her tell the legends of “olden times,” spiced with her wit. But none were more entertained that her son “little Jacky” as she affectionately called her son. In childhood play he would often imitate her.
Life and CollegeOne day the traveling puppeteer in his area lost his voice and could not continue the performance. Young Curran, having memorized the entire play, asked if he could not be the voice of Mr. Punch. The puppeteer agreed. Curran greatly amused the crowd– until he began changing some of the lines, adding satire on the local politics. Becoming braver with each performance young Curran’s dialogue eventually went to far, touching too many sensitive nerves. Mr. Punch had to move on. With such a sense of humor, Curran was naturally given to some mischief. He was often involved in the neighborhood escapees. “Heaven only know where it would have ended,” Curran wrote, “But, as my poor mother said, I was born to be a great man.” 2 Eventually the pride of the Senate and the courtroom, Curran responded to all compliments that any merits he possessed he owed to the affections of his gifted mother. While playing marbles with the neighborhood boys, Curran was seen by the rector of Newmarket, who was a kindly gentleman. For some unknown reason unknown, the kindly rector took an interest in him. The rector, “Boyse,” as Curran called him, invited the young lad to his home to visit and became fast friends. In this favored environment Curran learned his alphabet and grammar and was introduced to the classics. The rector taught Curran all the could and then made it possible for the lad to attend school at Middleton. Of “Boyse,” Curran said, “He made a man of me.” 3 Years later after he had gained eminence, Curran related that he came home from Parliament one day to find an old gentleman sitting in his drawing-room. “He turned around,” recorded Curran. “It was my fried of the ball alley, Boyse! I rushed instinctively into his arm. I could not help bursting into tears. Words cannot describe the scene which followed. ‘You are right, Sir; you are right; the chimney-piece is yours–the pictures are yours–the house is yours: you gave me all I have-my friend–my father!” 4When they had finished dinner that evening, Curran observed a tear glistening in the eye of the old gentleman. He was grateful to see his bounty and kindness resulted in goodness in his young recipient. As in the lives of eminent men, Curran’s life was touched by other great men. When he left the influence of Boyse, he came under the influence of a gentleman named Mr. Carey. Not only did Mr. Carey befriend young Curran, but he also had a profound knowledge of the best of the ancient literature. He shared with young Curran his great store of classical learning. Upon finishing his courses at Middleton, Curran entered Trinity College, a theological college. I had been his mother’s wish that he become a preacher. However, an event at Trinity changed his career. Guilty of a schoolboy prank, Curran was brought before a Dr. Duigenan, who was the enforcer of the law. Curran;s punishment was to pay a fine of five shillings, or translate an article into Latin. He chose the latter assignment. But upon the appointed day he had not done the assignment. As a result the consequence was increased, he was to stand before the professor and give a recitation in Latin from the pulpit in the college chapel. Curran prepared his Latin sermon and gave it. He was not far into his speech before Dr. Duigenan realized the it was a satire on himself! As soon as Curran finished, he was sent to the provost to be reprimanded. The provost listened in amusement to the Latin presentation and dismissed him with only a slight reproof. Curran’s comrades all declared him born to the profession of a lawyer and not a preacher. He accepted their pronouncement, changed his courses and pursued a law degree. In 1773, with a Master’s degree in hand, Curran went to London to enter law school. Letters written during this time gave a taste of his life then. “I still read,” he wrote a friend, “ten hours every day, seven at law and three at history, or the general principles of politics; and that I may have time enough, I rise at half after four, In order to keep such a rigorous schedule, Curran contrived an “alarm” to wake himself up at four every morning.
- Exactly over my head I have suspended two vessels of of tin, one above the other; when I go to bed, which is always at ten, I pour a bottle of water into the upper vessel, in the bottom of which is a hole of such a size as to let the water pass through so as to make the inferior reservoir overflow in six hours and a half. I had no small trouble in proportioning those vessels; and I was still more puzzled for a while how to confine my head so as to receive the drop, but at length I succeeded. 5
Learning to be a LawyerDuring these early years, Curran struggled with poverty. A judge one chided him on his poverty. Speaking of this time Curran said, “my wife and children were the furniture of my apartments; as to my rent, it stood pretty much the same change of in liquidation with the national debt.” 7 Due to the sympathetic assistance of a fellow attorney, Bob Lyons, he was able to meet his rent. Soon Curran’s practice began to grow and he became known for his eloquence. A less reported but just as formidable talent was Curran’s ability to do cross examinations. In this he could not even be imitated. Those who committed perjury were usually exposed by the time Curran finished questioning them. Just as a stratagem is important in war, it was important to Curran in his pursuit of justice. During one trial a witness suffering under Curran’s verbal drilling, pleaded with the judge to have counsel stop him in such a “doldrum.” The judge asked Curran what the witness meant by a “doldrum,” to which he replied that it was merely “a confusion of the head arising from a corruption of the heart.” 8As Curran’s fame as an orator at the bar grew so did his association with other notables of his time. Those with time on their hands would come to court when Curran was presenting or defending a case just to be entertained. One of his contemporaries, Reverend George Croly said of his oratory skills:
- Of all orators, Curran was the most difficult to follow by transcription. The elocution–rapid, exuberant, and figurative in a singular degree–was often compressed into a pregnant pungency which gave a sentence in a word, But his manner could not be transferred, and it was created for his style;–his eye, hand and figure were in perpetual speech. 9
- The poor pries had neither gold nor silver to bestow [recorded Curran’s son] but what he had, and what with him was above all price, he gave the blessing of a dying Christian upon him who had employed his talents. and risked, his life, in redressing the wrongs of the minister… He caused himself to be raised for the last time from his pillow, and, placing his hands on the head of his young advocate, pronounced over him the formal benediction of the Roman Catholic Church…. 10
A Defending LawyerCurran vigorously defended such issues as liberty of the press and national representation. In speaking of the liberty of the press he said, “The liberty of the press, and the liberty of the people, sink and rise together; that the liberty of speaking and the liberty of acting, have shared exactly the same fate…” 11 Although he was a Protestant, he fought for Catholic Emancipation as no Catholic could vote or be elected to Parliament. (At this time Ireland was eighty percent Catholic.) Curran also maintained that the most rigid principles when it came to money matters therefore he could not be bribed. Curran served in Parliament with another “eminent” Irishman, Henry Grattan, to better Ireland’s conditions under King George III of England, who had severely limited Irish industry. Private ownership or property was prohibited. The Protestants were permitted ninety-nine year leases and Catholics only thirty-one. The one staple food was the potato, because England had limited other agriculture. This led to a great famine during the potato blight. An effort to change many of these injustices, Curran supported many of the proposals by Grattan, and worked for the repeal of these deadly restriction. The repression by England finally pushed Ireland to the brink of a revolution. But England could ill afford another revolution on the heels of the American Revolution, so she conceded a number of rights to the Irish people. Grattan and Curran were not only political allies but also intimate friends to their death. Sine twenty years after Grattan and Curran had worked together, Curran wrote to Grattanabout their years in Parliament he wrote: “I have made no compromise with power…” 12 Curran’s biographer, a personal acquaintance, Charles Philips, stated of Curran: “Whatever might have been the fate of his eloquence, it was impossible for his votes to be mispresented; and the friend of liberty will never look for him in vain wherever freedom or religious toleration was endangered.” 13 Once in a courtroom he approached the jury with an admonition that would do us well to follow. “I have right to call upon in the name of your country in the name of the living God of whom eternal justice you are now administering in that portion which dwells with us on this side of the grave, to discharge your breasts, as far as you are able, of every bias of prejudice or passion.” 14 In 1798, military oppression broke out and supported by the leading party. Much to Curran’s dismay Ireland began to resemble the bloodthirsty days following the French Revolution. No person or property was safe. Despite the danger, Curran did not cease to speak out against the government’s diabolic actions, often acting as counsel in the cases of those accused of high treason. Yet, Providence preserved him. Reportedly because of his “unstained” reputation, he was never a victim of the bayonet or dungeon. His speeches were full of illustrations from the scriptures,. No irreverent word against religion was ever heard from Curran.
A Devoted FatherHe was a devoted father. At home, “He was a little convivial deity,” reported a visitor.
- He soared in every region, and was at home in all; he touched everything, and seemed as if he had created it; he mastered the human heart with the same ease that he did his violin. You wept and you laughed, and you wondered; and the wonderful creature who made toy all at will, never let it appear that he was more than your equal. 15
- Duyckinck, Evert A. Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women. New York: Henry J. Johnson, 1873, p. 504.
- Phillips, Charles. Recollections of Curran & Some of His Contempories. New York: C. Wiley & Co., 1818, p. 9.
- Phillips, p. 10.
- Phillips, p. 10.
- Duyckinck, p. 399.
- Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed. 1910. 7:647.
- Phillips, p. 31.
- Phillips, p. 41.
- Duyckinck, p. 407.
- Duyckinck, p. 403.
- Phillips, p. 175.
- Ibid,. p. 130.
- Ibid,. p. 136.
- Ibid,. p. 155.
- Duyckinck, p. 408.
- Copyright © Taken from the book: The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Special thanks to Vicki Jo Anderson. Please do not copy. Anderson, Vicki Jo. (1994). The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Cottonwood, AZ: Zichron Historical Research Institute.